Garbage Pick-Up, Gaming & Proust: The Ironic Beauty of Dystopia

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I came across a fascinating article by Vice’s website about a rather strange video game: “Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor.”  Unlike every other game that propels you into a fantasy world, “Diaries” is very much real, maybe even too real.  While it takes place in a fictitious world full of weird species and spaceships, the challenges are very relatable.  Maybe even too relatable.   You play out the seemingly mundane, sometimes stressful, practices of everyday life.  Instead of positioning you as a hero or heroine, imbued with superpowers and rewarded for achieving the seemingly impossible, e.g., slaying the dragon, gunning down hordes or bad guys, throwing the longest football pass EVER,  etc., this game celebrates the anti-hero and the “anti-adventure.”  In “Diaries” one must deal with the harshness of a dead end job as a janitor, the desire to escape one’s daily predicament — if only there were enough money saved up to do so, and getting robbed on the way home after a long day.  There are certainly tests and tribulations but they mirror those in so many of our daily lives.

What is the allure you may ask?  Why would someone play this?  I can see why it would begun to try it “it out” for the novelty of it.  But who wants to relive our lives, especially the boring or frustrating parts of it?

But I get it.

And I just spoke about a related notion last week in Milan, Italy  at the If Italians Festival for the creative advertising industry.  Among the various insights I shared, I spoke about why we love to upload, download and share the mundane stuff of everyday life.  When we can have access to so many images of fine artwork via the Internet, why do we spend so much time look at sunsets, our dogs doing something funny or our dinners?  These pictures are not crappy by any means.  Many are often well shot or juxtaposed to offer us a new perspective on these everyday things.  But still, who cares?

WE ALL DO …  and it’s deep.

Throughout history we have always tried to see the beautiful in the mundane.  We crave it.  Marcel Proust talks about this.  And Ancient religions, authors, and playwright have been doing this since the beginning of time.  Turning the everyday into the beautiful allows us to feel like our daily lives aren’t boring, wasteful or downright sad, but rather, beautiful, exciting, and magnificent.  We desperately need this.

This game may not satisfy our hero fantasies but it fulfills something else deeply fundamental: it allows us to see the beauty in the routine.  As the article states so well, this game “find(s) such beauty in the banality of a truly awful job.”  In the ever-changing, dynamic world we live in, so many of us are looking for new new thing — the new job, new house, new mate.  But sometimes there’s beauty in consistency, in the every day trials and tribulations, and being able to know what’s coming next.  We just have to recognize it and appreciate it.

Oh, and for those of us who travel by subway everyday, consistency is the ultimate fantasy come true! LOL 🙂

Beauty, Judgements & Hypocrites: Enough is Enough

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That’s a picture of me when I was about 6 months old.  As you can tell I’m wearing a special shoe on my left foot.  That shoe, along with a cast, straightened (well, for the most part) the crooked leg I was born with.  I’m sure my parents were thinking that having a slightly crooked leg would hamper my movement as I grew up.  But I bet the biggest reason for the correction was that I would just look plain funny with a twisted leg.

So many of us have reconstructed some part of our bodies that we don’t even think twice about it.   Think about how many people have straightened their crooked teeth or in the case of Debora L. Spar, who recently authored “Aging and My Beauty Dilemma” in last week’s New York Times, reduced her breasts via breast reduction surgery.  Such procedures rarely faze us or compel us to judge people harshly because of them.  When a 13 year-old boy walks around with upper and lower braces in his mouth,  we don’t say: “oh, he’s so vain” or “he’s succumbing to social pressures, he should be above that.”  Of course not.

So why do so many of us strong, empowered women feel so damn insecure getting fillers or a boob lift?  Why must we think we are somehow being hypocrites or turning our back on feminism?

I have to hand it to Spar for putting herself out there and sharing her insecurities.  And bravo for the New York Times to take her words seriously enough to print them.  As president of an excellent women’s college, Barnard, Spar is certainly a model of feminism.  And yet, she, like so many of us, are fearful of looking old, and, at the same time, ashamed for feeling that way or doing anything about it.  It wasn’t so much that she was insecure with her changing looks (though she clearly is) but that she feels she is going against her feminist principles that really bothered her.

I get it.  The media or western culture in general can often makes us feel ugly and prey on our insecurities around aging.  And then, to make matters worse, it pressures us not to address those feelings lest we be called frivolous or worse, a hypocrite.

But, c’mon.  Getting a haircut, shaving our legs, and wearing Invisalign are such common behaviors now we don’t think anything of them.  And yet they are all part of our daily regimen to transform how we look.  Should we feel ashamed that we do them, no way!  And men do them too.  They don’t make us less powerful, brilliant or leader-like.

And the same should be true for fillers, botox, breast augmentation, you name it.  They will become so common one day that we will put them in the same bucket as teeth whitening.

So let’s stop wasting our precious energies on judging others for their beauty boosting behaviors.  And even better, lets stop wasting our time and effort feeling ashamed for partaking in them.

I applaud Spar for her article.  Good for her for having the courage to be so vulnerable and talk about something WE ALL feel in some shape or form.  But wouldn’t it be even better if all those “judges” just left her alone so she can feel confident about how she looks and what she does to keep herself feeling beautiful.  And that way she can spend more of her time writing about and sharing her valuable insights on women’s education and leadership instead.

Can Technology Be Biased? This Beauty Contest Reveals How Much

 

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Before I start, allow me to thank you all for your super interesting comments on last week’s post.   I love hearing and learning from all of you!

And now for our regularly scheduled program…:)

For about a year I’ve come across a few stories about beauty contests being judged by robots, that is Artificial Intelligence.   By measuring people’s (let’s face it, women’s) facial structures these robots can accurately determine beauty.  And given the judges are robots versus actual humans, we assume that the judgements are devoid of cultural or ethnic biases.  I’ve read these stories with mild interest.  But this time, a recent story stuck with me…and not in a good way.

I’m sure such a contest raises a whole host of issues for many of you.  First, I imagine many of you oppose such contests — humans or no humans as judges.  How can one judge beauty anyway?  Second, so much of physical beauty emanates from within.  I’m not talking about inner beauty.  That’s a whole other subject.  I’m talking about the energy, the light, the passion that springs forth from someone making then either more or less beautiful.  Can a robot really judge that?

But those issues aside, my biggest concern with this contest is what is conveys about technology as a whole.  The results of these contests showed how actually, how terribly biased A.I. can be!

According to this article in NextWeb, the contest drew over 6,000 applications from across 100 countries. And despite the obvious diversity of beauty that the robots were exposed to, out of the 44 winners, only a few were Asian, one was black, and the rest were white.  None had dark skin.

WTF!

Are the foolproof “complex algorithms” that biased?  I’m afraid so.  How can that be?  Easy.  A human being has designed them that way.  And that’s pretty scary.

I’m not saying the engineers behind the algorithms intentionally developed them to be pro white.  It’s just that bias is going to inevitable when the majority of the brilliant brains behind the development of technology are of a certain gender, ethnic background or culture.  No matter how much we try to rid ourselves of our biases, it’s super, super hard to erase the ones we don’t even know we have.

If technology can be biased when it comes to beauty, could it also be biased when it comes to truly understanding the user and what s/he needs?  Or can it be biased with regards to places on the map or particular destinations?  You get the point.

So what do we do?  It’s not a new news that we should push harder for diversity our work places.  It makes for diversity of thought and ideas.  But it goes deeper than that.  Diversity ensures that the seemingly “judge-free,” non-biased technologies we create actually hold up to that expectation.  When humans are led by their biases, we forgive them.  Because, well, it’s “human” not to be perfect.  But technology shouldn’t make mistakes, right?  It can’t be biased.  So if technology, or in this case A.I., declares someone fit or beautiful or smart, well then it must be so!    And the result?  People deem the seemingly unbiased robots as arbiters of truth.

I’m not the first person to call for more diversity.  It’s a MUST.  But I’m also calling on all of us to challenge our notions of how “smart” our technology really is.  Believe me, I LOVE technology.  I’m benefiting from it in all aspects of my life, and, most, importantly in my job.  But let’s realize that behind all technology are human beings.  This recognition should mostly strike a sense of admiration in human kind. After all it takes a buttload of brilliance to be creating the amazing technology we have, and will have in the coming years.  But it should also open our eyes to that fact that technology isn’t fool proof, totally unbiased or “right” all the time.

Let’s remember, human beings are the smartest, most elegant and beautiful “machines” that exist.  We are complex, emotional and gorgeous in so many diverse ways.  We don’t need a technology-driven beauty contest to prove that.

Sexism, Searches & SEO: Time for a RESET

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This is a screen grab from my good friend and creative partner, Rudi Anggono’s, phone. He sent it to me the same night I announced the relaunch of my site via last week’s post. His email message to me, entitled “bias,” was the following:

I was googling your new site but halfway typing, check out the screen grab. “Husband” before “speaker”. We have to do something about this.

This is not the first time someone has mentioned this to me. I usually just crack up. You see, my husband is the LEAST likely to indulge in social media. The last thing he wants is to have any sort of presence online (unlike me, of course 😉 lol).

But Rudi has a point. And I love him for caring. You see Google search results reflect the popularity of a search term. That is, the more searched a term, the higher up on the search list it will appear. So, the fact that “abigail posner husband” appears before “abigail posner speaker” means more people are searching for information about my love life than they are about my speaking. Hmmmm.

I have to confess, there’s a part of me which is kinda flattered. Someone is intrigued enough to want to know about my love life? But, really, I’m just buying into the same sexism that Rudi is pointing to.

No matter how evolved we are, we STILL think it’s ok to demean women by focusing on their femininity, appearance or love lives over their accomplishments.

A few months ago BuzzFeed came out with the story, “If The Media Wrote About Theresa May’s Husband The Way They Write About Samantha Cameron,” perfectly highlighting this point. The article spoofs the inordinate amount of time media focuses on political figures’ wives, and their attire. The article gives examples with pictures and video clips of Phillip May accompanied by headlines such as: “Philip May shows off his tiny waist in a navy blue two-piece,” or “Phillip May shows off his adventurous side. with a light blue tie for another day at the Conservative Party Conference,” or “And maybe they’ll just wax lyrical about his trendsetting way but remind him he’s so much more than a sharp suit.”  No question the story is hilarious, but kinda sad too.

And here’s a less entertaining example.  Again, I give credit to Rudi for enlightening me about this one. The Washington Post published an article about the amazing victory of Olympiad Hungarian swimmer, Katinka Hosszu.  But the focus of the article wasn’t her win but rather the major faux pas by NBC telecaster Dan Hicks as he credited her coach-husband with the victory.  At the same time, the news media kept displaying images of her “cute” husband and Twitter was alight with tweets but all about HIM! Katinka can’t win…well, at least not in the media.

If you want the media to focus on your own beauty, fashion or romantic accomplishments, great! I have no problem with that.  After all, I love beauty and fashion. And who doesn’t love romance!? But if you’re someone who doesn’t want to be defined FIRST by that, today’s culture — along with my search results — is showing we may have a challenge.

But there’s hope.  Because what this last example of Katinka also shows that WE — the public — can voice our opinion about our culture’s screwy values.  Twitter lit up like bon fire after Hicks’s comment with angry tweets, like:

“Hosszu smashes the world record in the 400 IM. Camera pans up to her husband. Dan Hick:”There’s the man responsible!” Unbelievable”

Whether it’s by posting view via Twitter or spending more time searching in Google about people’s substance versus their relationship status or latest outfit, we can actually push for change. The very channels we criticize for reinforcing these values, are also the ones that bring them to light and can be the source for change.

I’m glad people are interested in my husband. He’s an amazing man and has had a tremendous impact on my life. But he’s first person to see me for who I am — a mother, a thinker, a Googler, a blogger, and friend, not for who I’m married to. I hope you all feel the same :).